Lawrence Toppman

‘Secret in Their Eyes’ almost achieves greatness

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Ray and Julia Roberts stars as Jess in STX Entertainment's “Secret in Their Eyes.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Ray and Julia Roberts stars as Jess in STX Entertainment's “Secret in Their Eyes.” STX Entertainment

Someday before I retire, I hope to see one English-language version of a complex, emotionally troubling foreign film that honors the original from first shot to last. But with 28 years of professional film criticism behind me, the chances are dwindling.

I thought I was going to get one with “Secret in Their Eyes,” the remake of the 2009 Argentine film that won a Foreign Film Oscar. (That was called “The Secret in Their Eyes.”) Allowing for a few reasonable changes, this well-made adaptation of it kept its course until the very last scene. Then, in the final moments, it lost its nerve and gave us the ending it thought fans would want to see, logic and fidelity be damned.

Still, the fine acting and adept pacing by writer-director Billy Ray make this an entertaining experience. Ray doesn’t have the political corruption of Argentina for a background. So he ties much of the story to Los Angeles in the months following the 9/11 attacks, when the city’s panic justifies any action in the name of counterterrorism.

The plot actually takes place in 2002 and 2015. In the first part, FBI agent Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor) goes to Los Angeles to investigate a mosque suspected of harboring a terrorist cell. He strikes up a friendship with homicide detective Jess (Julia Roberts) and has an unrequited yearning for assistant D.A. Claire (Nicole Kidman).

When a rapist kills Jess’ daughter, Ray realizes the slayer is a police snitch placed in the mosque to supply information. The district attorney (Alfred Molina) rules the snitch untouchable, whatever he may have done, and he disappears. This kicks off a 13-year quest for Ray; he quits the bureau, devotes himself to a private investigation, and comes back to L.A. in 2015, convinced he has found the long-missing killer under another name. Now he asks Jill and Claire (who has risen to district attorney) to reopen the case.

The movie’s not exactly a suspense drama, as we know the identity of the villain, or a thriller, because nobody’s put in jeopardy: The guy Ray accuses in 2015, a small-time car thief, simply wants to be left alone.

It’s a story of obsession. Ray learns that getting what you’ve sought for a third of your life may not bring peace or satisfaction, and some questions can’t be answered; he has always wondered whether Claire would have broken her engagement to marry him if he’d asked in 2002, and now he will never know.

Ejiofor and Kidman shine and get strong support from Dean Norris (sympathetic cop), Michael Kelly (unsympathetic cop) and Joe Cole (a convincingly smug killer).

Roberts has been teased for her “I’m-so-brave-I-don’t-wear-makeup” appearance. But that’s appropriate for a woman whose life falls apart after her daughter dies, and she gives her best performance in 15 years. I’d like to have seen her handle the chilling ending to the original film – but I guess that’s too much to ask.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Secret in Their Eyes’

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Dean Norris.

Writer-director: Billy Ray.

Length: 111 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (thematic material involving disturbing violent content, language and some sexual reference).